It’s cold. And dark. Why would you ever want to visit Iceland in the winter? A lot of people questioned our “travel-skills” when we told them, we were going to Iceland in the winter, but winter tourism is booming on Iceland – and there is a good reason for that. It really is cold, and it really is dark, but nothing compares to the beauty of Iceland dressed in her winter coat. The pink, blue and purple colors of the sky are in stark contrast to the barren lava fields and mountains, and if you are lucky to enough to catch a glimpse of the northern lights, who cares if you are dressed in so many layers it should be illegal.
And should you start to feel cold you can always jump in a hot spring. The most famous one is The Blue Lagoon with about one million visitors a year. That means everyone who has ever set foot on Iceland has slugged around in the blue water in The Blue Lagoon. That shouldn’t stop you from going, though – The Blue Lagoon is a must-see! Even when it’s really cold and snowing. I’ve never been to The Blue Lagoon in the summer, but when we went in January it was magic. If you want a lot of specific info about The Blue Lagoon, you should read this post: The Blue Lagoon.
But back to what this post is really about – why you should visit Iceland in the winter when there are only around 4-5 hours of effective daylight during the coldest months? My answer is the same as before: The beauty of it all will make your head spin. There is nothing kind, forgiving or mitigating about the weather, nature or landscape in the winter. There is a raw energy which makes you watch your step because if you don’t, you have a sense that the island will swallow you up whole. Nature really shows its formidable strength and beauty in a most humbling way.
Golden Circle in the winter
Like most tourists who visit Iceland, we wanted to see as much as possible of the Icelandic nature in the few days we had and booked a Golden Circle tour. Can you do a Golden Circle tour in the winter? Sure, you can. It is pitch dark when you leave with the bus around 8 in the morning, and it is just as dark when you return home around 16 in the afternoon, but you get to see the sun rise and set while driving in some very desolate areas of Iceland. The colors, quietness, and vastness of the place make you gasp for air. The tour is about 140 miles and takes you to three natural attractions close to Reykjavik; Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall. The schedule is tight, which is a bit of a shame as you whizz by lava plains and mountains painted in powder colors. When we go again – and we will – we will definitely rent a car and go on our own.
The first stop on our Golden Circle tour was Thingvellir National Park where you can see the Eurasian and American tectonic plates meet. Every year they pull apart with about one inch which makes Iceland’s belly rumble with earthquakes! Furthermore, the area holds great historical importance and is home to Althingi (the Icelandic parliament) which was formed in 930 AD, making it the oldest parliamentary site in the world. It was still dark when we arrived, and the wind was really harsh, so I guess this part of the trip is nicer in the summer.
Next stop was the waterfall Gullfoss. If you follow a small path, you can get really close to the waterfall, but we were not really feeling bold as the path was covered in ice, and the wind was whipping around with such force that we had to hold on to our boys so they wouldn’t “skate” away from us.
Last stop was the valley in Haukadalur where mother nature spews scalding hot water up from her within. It is in Haukadalur that you can see Geysir and Strokkur – the two most famous geysers in Iceland. Strokkur, a really powerful hot spring, erupts about every 4–8 minutes and spouts water to a height of 15 – 20 meters, sometimes up to 40 meters.
Whales of Iceland
Another great thing to do if you go to Iceland in the wintertime is to visit the exhibition “Whales of Iceland”, where you can see 23 life-size models of the various whale species found in Icelandic waters throughout its natural history. The size of the whales – especially the blue whale with its whopping 82 feet in length – has a pretty good “wauuuw-effect”. The exhibition is very informative with videos, whalesong and interactive information stands. See more about the exhibition here: Whales of Iceland
Whale watching in the winter
Yes, you can do it, but you probably won’t see a lot of whales. We didn’t, but it was no big surprise. We only went because we promised a trip on the sea to the boys before we knew there are no, or very few, whales in the Icelandic waters in the winter. But the trip was not entirely wasted as we got to see Reykjavik and the surroundings from the seaside. And if you feel really bummed out about having spent money on whale watching without having seen any whales you can just come back as most of the touring companies have a “whale guarantee”. This is just another good reason to come back to Iceland in the spring or summer.
Go to the swimming pool
The Blue Lagoon is not the only place to go swimming in a geothermal pool – you can also go to a regular pool. It’s a great and inexpensive way to have some fun with kids and still experience something that is very much part of the Icelandic culture. The only unfortunate thing about our trip to the pool was when our youngest boy puked in the water. Not so great – and very hard to scoop puke up with your hands when in water. But here we learned something about the Icelandic mentality – they are not fussy. At all. I’ve found a great link to the best swimming pools in Reykjavik: Swimming pools in Reykjavik.
On the way to the pool, you can always take a walk around Reykjavik.
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